Opinionista Marius Oosthuizen 20 May 2019

Navigating South Africa’s public discourse, dialogue and debate

South Africa has rightly been described as ‘a noisy democracy’ by Somadoda Fikeni. In any given week, one might witness a prominent politician such as Helen Zille, Makhosi Khoza or Herman Mashaba sparring with a talk-show host like Eusebius McKaiser, a journalist like Redi Tlhabi or with members of the general public. There seems to be an endless supply of the spectacle of verbal food-fights over anything from race relations and migration to inequality or political incorrectness.

Marius Oosthuizen

Marius Oosthuizen is a scenario planner and writes in his own capacity.

Outrage seems to have become South African’s national socio-psychological sport — where gladiators of opinion entertain us to a binge of “he said she said”, and nowhere else is the art being perfected more readily than on social media.

This noisiness is either a display of our democratic maturity or immaturity on the part of our public figures. It is either evidence of our freedom in action or of our lack of shared freedom in the public square, and a scarcity of co-creative thought.

One possible way to discern which is true, democratic virtue or egoistic vitriol, is to understand the difference between discourse, dialogue and debate.

Many of the arguments bandied about by the Twitterati of Mzansi are in fact discourse, dressed up as a debate. In a debate, contending parties enter into combat with their opponents in a battle of ideas. The goal of debate is to surface the salient contours of competing arguments. As such, logic and reason, not mere linguistic and rhetorical prowess, is the name of the game.

Discourse, on the other hand, is a social phenomenon where groups and intersecting networks in society engage in a shared conversation, with the purpose of convening and mobilising voices to perpetuate a particular agenda.

Think, for instance, of the discourse that popularised “Black Lives Matter” in the US and later in South Africa. Discourse serves a purpose; that is, it aims to achieve a social outcome, which appears, in this case, to be to publicly emphasise the historic and present-day devaluation of the lives of black people compared with white people. The discourse is a critique of social structure and convention. It is an assault on the hegemony of entrenched patriarchy, Western-centricity, particularly in post-colonial and post-slavery societies of which South Africa and the US are useful poster children.

Now, when the unwitting newcomer to South Africa’s social psychosis enters bravely where titans of discourse fear to tread, they may err in mistaking discourse for debate. To engage, rationally and logically, with purveyors of discourse in the spirit of debate, is to unleash a torrent, even a tsunami or plague of hungry proponents looking for a harvest of rationality that they can consume outright with self-righteous rage. The agenda is to further the cause, not to win an argument. Conversely, the debaters dig their heels in on the basis of their argument — often missing the point.

That is not to say that discourse is only ever illogical or irrational. Quite to the contrary, the underlying argument of a discourse might be thoroughly logical, but the means of its engagement is more often socially interpretivist, not sensible in mathematical or rationally logical terms. Discourse often bends the rules of language, as does poetry and insult.

This is because discourse uses words and categories as buckets of social meaning, to weaponise them against existing norms and standards like hand-grenades tossed into a conversation. Discourse is interested in social change, not strict rationality. The means of disruption and discontinuity in rationality that discourse provokes, serves the purpose of achieving socially desirable ends — to the horror of the debaters.

The EFF, for instance, calls this approach “superior logic”, when really it is the use of discourse to debilitate debate for the purpose of increasing social momentum around a set of ideas.

The solution to South Africa’s current public square quagmire, I surmise, is not more of either discourse or debate, but dialogue. Dialogue is transformative or mutually formative, moulding the participants who undertake it. It sets as the goal not logical rational triumphalism as debaters do, nor subversive manoeuvring in the battle of the discourses. Rather, dialogue prizes mutual understanding and insight. It praises congeniality, not conflict and one-upmanship.

One should leave it to the individual citizen to judge who among our public figures is constructive and authentic in their deliberations, and who is playing irresponsible and destructive word-games.

From my perspective, our social polarisation only signifies a broader dearth of facilitative, reflexive leadership for the common good. What seems to be missing from our public square is the voices of leaders whose commitment to the collective interest demands a level of civility becoming of social dialogue.

A part of the problem we face might be the lack of cognitive and reflexive capacity of certain individuals to critically engage with their own biases and thereby engage others more humbly.

Such incapacity would manifest as ideological intolerance and the fascistic suppression of ideas in the name of “superiority” — the irony not being entirely lost when South Africans leap from a system rooted in racial supremacy to one rooted in so-claimed rational supremacy. It amounts to the oppression of the “other”, not of race, but of opinion.

Our Tata Mandela would be horrified if he were here, but we likely wouldn’t know, since those calling him a sellout would shout him down, insisting that their discourse is superior.

One hopes that new voices will emerge in South Africa, who understand that the art of listening is more than half the science of effective communication. DM

Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics, and writes in his own capacity.

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